Story of the Holy Grail by H. A. Guerber 1913
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The Anglo-Norman trouvères rightly considered the Story of the Holy Grail the central point of interest of the Arthurian cycle, or the grand climax in the legend.
So many versions of the tale have been written by poets of different nationalities and different ages—all of whom have added characteristic touches to the story—that, instead of following the text of any one particular version, a general outline of the two principal Holy Grail legends will be given here. Although all the poets do not mention the origin of the Holy Grail, or sacred vessel, a few trace its history back to the very beginning. They claim that when Lucifer stood next to the Creator, or Father, in the heavenly hierarchy, the other angels presented him with a wonderful crown, whose central jewel was a flawless emerald of unusual size.
The advent of the Son, relegating Lucifer to the third instead of the second place, occasioned his apostasy, which, as Milton explains, was followed by war in heaven and by the expulsion of the rebel angels. During his fall from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell, the emerald, dropping out of Satan's crown, fell upon earth. There it was fashioned into the cup or dish which Our Lord used during the Last Supper, and in which Joseph of Arimathea caught a few drops of blood which flowed from His side. After the Crucifixion the Jews walled Joseph alive in a prison, where he was sustained in good health and spirits by the Holy Grail, which he had taken with him. In this prison Joseph lingered until Vespasian, hearing the story of Christ's passion, sent messengers to Palestine for relics, hoping they might cure his son Titus of leprosy. Restored to health by the sight of St. Veronica's handkerchief,—which had wiped away the bloody sweat from Our Lord's brow and bore the imprint of his feature,—Titus proceeded to Jerusalem, where he summoned the Jews to produce the body of Christ. Not being able to comply, they accused Joseph of having stolen it. Thereupon Titus, continuing his investigations, found Joseph alive and well in the prison where he was supposed to have perished. Free once more, yet dreading further persecution, Joseph embarked, with his sister and brother-in-law Brons, in a vessel bound for Marseilles, the Holy Grail supplying all their needs during the journey. On landing in France, Joseph was divinely instructed to construct a table, around which he and his companions could be seated, and where the Holy Grail supplied each guest with the food he preferred. But one seat at this table, in memory of Judas, was to remain empty until a sinless man came to occupy it. A sinner, once attempting to seat himself in it, was swallowed up by the earth, and Joseph was informed that the enchanter Merlin would in time make a similar table, where a descendant of Brons would have the honor of occupying this "Siege Perilous." From Marseilles, by gradual stages, and meeting with every kind of adventure on the way, Joseph, or his descendants, conveyed the Holy Grail to Glastonbury in England, where it remained visible until people became too sinful for it to dwell any more in their midst. It was then borne off to Sarras, an island city,—presumably located in the Mediterranean,—where, according to one legend King Evelake mounted guard over the treasure.
According to another legend, a pilgrim knight laid a golden cross on the Holy Sepulchre, ardently praying for a son, whom at his birth he named Titurel and dedicated to the service of the Lord. After this Titurel had spent years in warfare against the Saracens and in doing good to the poor, an angel announced to him that he had been chosen to guard the Holy Grail, which was about to descend once more to earth, and take up its abode on Montsalvatch. This vision sufficed to send Titurel off on a quest for the Holy Mountain,—which some authorities identify with the place of the same name on the east coast of Spain,—whither he was safely led by a guiding cloud.
After ascending the steep mountain, Titurel was favored with a glimpse of the Holy Grail, and he and a number of knights—also brought thither by miraculous means—erected a marvellous temple, whose foundations were laid by the angels, who labored at the edifice while the volunteer builders were at rest. In a marvellously short time a temple of transcendent beauty was thus finished, and, as soon as it was consecrated, the Holy Grail stole down from heaven on a beam of celestial light, to abide in its midst. Titurel, king and guardian of the Holy Grail, always presided at the table around which his knights gathered, and where one and all were miraculously fed. Besides, there appeared from time to time on the edge of the sacred vase, in letters of fire, instructions bidding a knight go out into the world to defend some innocent person or right some wrong. The Knights of the Holy Grail, or Templars, as they were indifferently styled, then immediately sallied forth to fulfil this behest, which according to their vows had to be accomplished without revealing their name or origin. Once the command was that Titurel should marry, whereupon he wooed a Spanish maiden, by whom he had a son and daughter. This son, marrying in the same way, had in time two sons and three daughters, one of whom became the mother of Parzival.
Old and weary of reigning, Titurel finally resigned the care of the Holy Grail, first to his son,—who was slain in war,—and then to his grandson Amfortas. But the latter proved restless also, went out into the world, and, instead of serving the Holy Grail, lived a life of pleasure and adventure. Wounded by a thrust from a poisoned lance,—some authors claim it was the one which wounded the Saviour's side,—Amfortas sadly returned to Montsalvatch, where the mere thought of the veiled Holy Grail increased his pain by intensifying his remorse. There, one day, he read on the rim of the cup, that his wound was destined to be healed by a guileless fool, who would accidentally climb the mountain and, moved by sympathy, would inquire the cause of his suffering and thereby make it cease.
We have already mentioned the fact that Parzival was a great-grandson of Titurel; his mother, fearing he would die young, like his father, were he to become a knight, brought him up in seclusion, telling him nothing about knights, fighting, or the world. Straying in the forest one day this youth encountered a couple of knights, whom he mistook for angels, owing to their bright array, and offered to worship. The knights, however, refused his homage, and good-naturedly advised him to hasten to Arthur's court and learn to become a knight too.
Parzival now left his mother,—who died of grief,—went to court (meeting sundry adventures on the way), and there asked to be knighted. He was told, however, he must first procure a horse and armor, whereupon he followed and slew an insolent knight who defied King Arthur. But Parzival did not know how to remove the armor from his dead foe, until a passing knight obligingly showed him how it was done.
Parzival now spent a time of apprenticeship at court where he learned among other things, that a knight should never be unduly inquisitive, then went to the rescue of a persecuted and virtuous queen, whom he wooed and married. He soon left her, however, to visit his mother, of whose death he was not aware. On his way home Parzival came to a lake, where a richly dressed fisherman informed him he might find a night's lodging in the castle on the hill, where he offered to conduct him. Thus Parzival penetrated into the castle on Montsalvatch and was duly led into the banqueting hall. Awed by the splendor of his surroundings, the young candidate for knighthood silently noted that his host seemed to be suffering from a secret wound, and perceived that all the other guests were oppressed by overwhelming sadness. Then suddenly the doors opened wide, and a strange procession entered the hall, slowly circled around the table, and again passed out! In this procession marched a servant bearing a bloody lance, at the sight of which all present groaned, then came maidens carrying the stand for the Holy Grail, which was reverently brought in by Titurel's grand-daughter. The vase was, however, closely veiled, and it was only after repeated entreaties from the knights present that the host unveiled it, uttering the while heart-rending groans.
All present were now served with the food they most desired, which they ate in silence, and then the knights marched out of the hall, gazing reproachfully at Parzival, who silently wondered what all this might mean. His hunger sated, Parzival was conducted to luxurious sleeping apartments, but, when he was ready to leave on the morrow, all the castle seemed deserted, and it was only when he had crossed the drawbridge and it had been raised behind him, that a harsh voice was heard vehemently cursing him. Shortly after, on learning that a sympathetic inquiry would have dispelled the gloom in the palace, he had just left, Parzival attempted to return, but the mysterious castle was no longer to be found. Such was our hero's remorse for his sin of omission that he continued the quest for years, doing meanwhile all manner of noble and heroic deeds. In reward, he was knighted by Arthur himself, and bidden by Merlin occupy "the Siege Perilous" where his name suddenly appeared in letters of gold.
Our version of the story explains that, just as he was about to sit down in the Siege Perilous, the witch Kundrie arrived, and hotly denounced him as an unfeeling wretch, a sufficient reminder to make Parzival immediately renew his quest. Adequate penance having been done at last, and the young knight having stood every test without losing his purity, Parzival was finally allowed to atone for his unconscious fault. Once more he arrived at the castle, once more entered the banquet hall, and once more beheld the mystic procession. Strengthened by silent prayer, Parzival then asked the momentous question; whereupon Amfortas' wound was instantly healed, the aged Titurel released from the pain of living, Kundrie baptized, and Parzival unanimously hailed as future guardian of the Grail, an office he humbly yet proudly assumed.
Another legend claims that his son Lohengrin, ordered by the Holy Grail to go and defend Elsa of Brabant, received from his father a magic horn, by means of which he was to announce his safe arrival at his destination, and to summon help whenever he wished to return. Instead of riding a charger, Lohengrin was conveyed in a swan-drawn skiff to Brabant, where he found Elsa praying for a champion to defend her against Frederick of Telramund's accusation of having slain her little brother, who had mysteriously disappeared.
Lohengrin, having proved the falsity of the charge by defeating the accuser in a judicial duel, married Elsa, warning her she must never seek to discover his name or origin, under penalty of seeing him depart as suddenly as he had arrived. The machinations of Frederick of Telramund, and of his artful wife, finally drove Elsa to propound the fatal question, and, as soon as Lohengrin has sorrowfully answered it, the swan appeared and bore him away! But, as Lohengrin departed, Elsa's brother reappeared to serve as her protector.
This—mostly German—version of the Grail legend—has been used by Wolfram von Eschenbach for a long and famous epic, and by Wagner for his operas Parzival and Lohengrin. In the French and particularly in the English versions of the Quest for the Holy Grail, or Sangreal, Percival is with the other knights of Arthur's Round Table when they take this vow. He seeks for it, perceives it through a veil, but never entirely achieves the quest, since that privilege is reserved for the peerless Galahad.
The versions of the Holy Grail Story of which Galahad is hero run about as follows: Galahad is the son of Launcelot and Elaine, the latter's nurse having, by means of enchantment, made her to appear as Guinevere—whom Launcelot loved. Deserted by the accidental father of her coming child, this Elaine—daughter of King Pelles—took refuge in a nunnery, where she gave birth to Galahad, whom when dying she entrusted to the nuns. Brought up by those holy women and strengthened in early infancy by frequent glimpses of the Holy Grail,—whose light was blinding to all but the perfectly pure,—Galahad reached manhood as pure as when he was born. One day Sir Launcelot and Sir Bors were summoned from Camelot to a small church near by, to act as sponsors for a young candidate for knighthood, who was presented to them by some nuns. Launcelot and Bors, having thus heard Galahad take his vows, were not surprised to see him brought into their midst on a gala day, by Merlin or by the spirit of Joseph, and to hear him warmly welcomed by Arthur. Some versions claim that Galahad, led to the Siege Perilous, found his name miraculously inscribed on it in letters of gold, and was told he alone should occupy that place at the Round Table.
According to some accounts, it was while all the knights were thus seated around Arthur's board on this occasion, that the Holy Grail suddenly appeared in their midst, its radiance so veiled by its coverings that one and all vowed—when it had disappeared—never to rest until they had beheld it unveiled. Arthur, knowing this boon would be granted only to the absolutely pure and that they were all but one sinful men in various degrees, keenly regretted they should have made a vow which would entail a hopeless quest, and would at the same time leave him bereft of the very knights who had hitherto helped him to right the wrong and keep the pagans at bay. The knights hastened to church to receive a blessing before they departed, and then went off, singly or in small groups, to seek the Holy Grail.
When Galahad arrived at Arthur's court, he was fully armed, save that an empty scabbard hung by his side and that he bore no shield. Soon after his arrival, a servant breathlessly announced he had just seen a large block of stone floating down the river, into which a beautiful sword was thrust to the hilt. On hearing this, Arthur and his knights hurried down to the landing place, but, although the stone paused there, neither the king nor any of the nobles at his court were able to draw out the sword. It became evident it was intended for Galahad only, when he easily drew it out of the stone. It was then, according to this version, that the other knights pledged themselves to go in quest of the Holy Grail. Riding off alone, Galahad came to an abbey, where hung a white shield bearing a red cross, which he learned had once belonged to the king of Sarras, who was converted by Joseph's son. The red cross was drawn with blood, and was to remain undimmed for its future bearer, Galahad.
The young champion, thus completely equipped, rode off and next arrived at the enchanted Castle of the Holy Grail. There he saw Titurel, the sleeping king, and Amfortas, the acting king, before whom the Grail passed unseen because he had sinned. Silently Galahad watched the mystic procession of bleeding spear, miraculous dish or cup, and Seven-branched Candlesticks. Like Parzival he hesitated to ask any questions, and failed to achieve the Holy Grail, because, although possessing all other virtues, he could not entirely forget himself for the sake of others and thus lacked true sympathy or altruism. Thrust out of the Castle—like Parzival—he wandered through a blighted country, where he met the Loathley Damsel, who in punishment for her sins was turned loose into the world to work evil to men. She hotly reviled Galahad for not having asked the momentous question, and the youth, learning thus in what way he had been wanting, solemnly vowed to return to the castle and atone for his omission.
But meantime the enchanted Castle had vanished, and Galahad, the Champion of Purity,—whose red color he always wears,—travelled through the world, righting the wrong. He arrived thus at the gate of a castle defended by seven knights,—the Seven Deadly Sins,—with whom he struggled to such good purpose that he defeated them, and was free to enter into the Castle of the Maidens, or place where the Active Virtues have long been kept in durance vile. But, the door still being locked, Galahad was glad to receive the key proffered by an old monk, who, in the legend, personified Righteousness.
Galahad, the emblem of a pure soul, now penetrated into the castle, where the maidens blessed him for setting them free, and where he modestly received their thanks. Among these maidens was Lady Blanchefleur, Galahad's match in purity, to whom he bade farewell as soon as their nuptials were solemnized, for he realized The Quest could be achieved only by a virgin knight.
Once more Galahad rides through the world, and this time he again finds and enters into the castle of the Grail, where he once more beholds the Sacred Mysteries. His heart full of sympathy for the suffering Amfortas, he now overlooks the rules of formal politeness in his desire to help, and propounds the decisive question. Immediately a refulgent light shines forth from the veiled Grail in all its life-giving radiance, and King Amfortas, healed of his sin, and hence able to see the vessel, dies of joy, just as an angel bears the priceless treasure away from the Enchanted Castle, where it is no longer to sojourn.
Longing for the time when he too can see the Grail unveiled, Galahad remounts his milk-white steed and rides through the world, where everybody thanks him for freeing the world of the pall of darkness and sin which has rested upon the land ever since Amfortas, titulary guardian of the Holy Grail, sinned so grievously. Riding thus, Galahad comes at last to the sea, where King Solomon's ship awaits him. This vessel has been miraculously preserved for this purpose, and sent here to convey him safely to Sarras, "the spiritual place." It is the present home of the Holy Grail, which had already sojourned there after the death of Joseph of Arimathea.
The ship in which Galahad embarks is steered by an angel, one of the Guardians of the Holy Grail, and the cup it holds, although closely veiled from profane glances, casts beams of refulgent light upon Galahad and his companions Sir Percival and Sir Bors. They two, however, not being perfectly pure, cannot clearly distinguish the Grail, whose sight fills the soul of Galahad with ineffable rapture. Before long the ship arrives at Sarras, the fabulous city, where Galahad can hang up his sword and shield and take his well-earned rest, for the Quest is at last achieved! The travellers are welcomed by an old man, and, when the king of Sarras dies, the people unanimously elect Galahad their next ruler.
After governing them wisely for a year, Galahad—who prayed in King Solomon's ship that he might pass out of the world whenever he should ask it—begged for the death of the body so he might find the eternal life of the soul.
When he died, the Holy Grail, which had been piously guarded in Sarras, returned to heaven, for Galahad's work was finished on earth, as is indicated by the frescos of the Boston library, where angels guard a Golden Tree of achievement whose branches reach right up into heaven.
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